Submarine and Trawler Collision Incidents

Commercial fishing is the most dangerous peacetime job in the United Kingdom with stormy weather, hazardous working conditions and isolation from emergency services and medical assistance all contributing to the risks commercial fishermen face. However, there have been a number of incidents of trawlers being seriously damaged and in some cases sunk when submarines collide with their nets. Many of these incidents have proved highly controversial as the navies and governments responsible for the incidents have failed to co-operate with investigations and have on some occasions refused to admit liability even when all of the evidence points to the fact that there were responsible.

Trafalgar-class Submarine
A Trafalgar-class submarine, the same class as the one involved in the incident with the Antares.

Antares: The Antares was a pelagic trawler which sank in the Firth of Clyde in November 1990 with all four crew members losing their lives. The vessel was lost when the Royal Navy Trafalgar-class submarine HMS Trenchant collided with the Antares nets, causing the trawler to capsize. The following investigation led to a number of significant changes regarding the conduct and movement of submarines in areas where trawlers are likely to be fishing. Read our full article on this incident by clicking here.

Summer Morn: In 1990 a Northern Irish fishing boat Summer Morn was dragged backwards for ten nautical miles when fishing in the Irish Sea. When the crew of the boat were eventually able to break their nets free and they found that a section of sonar or radar equipment from the submarine had become entangled with the cables which were reeled back onto the boat. Despite the piece of equipment being stamped with the words ‘NAVAL ELECTRONIC SYSTEMS COMMAND. Mfd by Spears Associates Inc., Norwood, Mass’ the US Navy initially denied that any of their submarines were operating in the area, although they did later admit that “the indications are that it was one of ours.

Bugaled Breizh: In January 2004 the French trawler Bugaled Breizh was fishing fourteen miles off the coast of Cornwall when it sank with the loss of all five crew members on board. The vessel had been fishing in good weather and although the crew did send a brief radio message that they were sinking they did not have time to launch any of the life rafts or attempt any other form of escape. While there were theories were that it had hit a sandbank or collided with a surface vessel analysis of the wreck ruled these out and the official inquiry into the sinking of the vessel stated that a submarine colliding with the nets of the trawler was the most likely cause of the loss of the vessel.

Bugaled Breizh
The Bugaled Breizh after being recovered from the seabed.

This theory was strengthened when it emerged that a NATO exercise was taking place in the area at the time the Bugaled Breizh sank, with Dutch, British and German submarines all active, as well as rumours that additional submarines from an unknown country (most likely Russia) were also observing the exercise. However, the loss of the Bugaled Breizh is still officially classed as unexplained, and no nation has accepted that one of its submarines may have been responsible for the loss of the vessel. This has meant that the families of the crew have been unable to hold anyone to account or claim any compensation for the incident, and, in 2015 there was a legal campaign to uncover the truth about the sinking of the Bugaled Breizh.

Update: In November 2021 a UK inquest ruled that the Bugaled Breizh was not sunk by a submarine and found that the vessel sank when its nets became snagged on the seabed. Judge Nigel Lickley QC said that the nearest submarine, the Dutch navy’s Dolfijn, was eleven nautical miles away from the Bugaled Breizh when the fishing vessel sank. He said that he was “satisfied that no other identified Allied submarine of any type or class was in the area at the time” and that claims that a submarine was responsible for the incident were “wholly fanciful and unfounded.”

Aquarius: A Scottish trawler was involved in an incident in March 2015 which was thought to be caused by a submarine. The Aquarius was fishing off the Outer Hebrides with two nets when one of them became swept around in front of the vessel. The fishing boat had to increase its revs to avoid running over its own net which would have caused its propeller to become tangled up. Angus Macleod, the captain of the Aquarius, stated that he has convinced that only a collision with his vessels nets and a submarine could have caused the incident. While the UK government said that no British or NATO submarines were active in the area there had been a number of Russian submarines operating in Scottish waters, due to increased tensions with Russia and the West over the Russian annexation of the Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. Angus Macleod said that the incident had cost him both his catch and fishing time, and also caused damage to the steering mechanisms and rudder of the Aquarius which would cost around £10,000 to repair.

Sheralga: In 1982 the County Louth fishing boat Sheralga was trawling in the Irish sea when it was suddenly dragged backwards for around two miles. The boat began taking on water and eventually capsized. The crew had to jump into the sea where they were rescued by other trawlers which were operating in the area. It eventually emerged that the Sheralga‘s nets had been caught by HMS Porpoise, an 88-metre long, 2000 ton Royal Navy submarine. The incident led to calls for submarines to be banned from Irish waters.

U.S. Navy ships with Destroyer Squadron (DESRON) 26 transit the Atlantic Ocean to Scotland March 19, 2014, in support of exercise Joint Warrior 14-1. Joint Warrior is a United Kingdom-led exercise designed to improve interoperability between allied navies and prepare participating crews to conduct combined operations while deployed.
U.S. Navy ships with Destroyer Squadron 26 taking part in Exercise Joint Warrior in 2014. The 2015 edition took place off the coast of Scotland and featured fifty warships, seventy aircraft and over 10,000 personnel. The exercise may have explained the presence of Russian submarines in the surrounding area.

Karen: In April 2015 the Northern Irish trawler the Karen was fishing eighteen miles off the coast of County Down when it was suddenly pulled backwards at a speed of around 10 knots (11.5 mph). The crew had to rapidly scramble to cut the steel wires connecting the 60-ft trawler to the submerged nets in order to free the vessel. In an interview with the BBC the skipper Paul Murphy said that the incident had caused £10,000 worth of damage to his vessel and caused him the loss of two tons of catch. He also added that his crew were lucky to escape unharmed. Again it was believed that a Russian submarine was responsible, as the Royal Navy stated that one of their submarines would have surfaced to check on the welfare of the trawler crew if they collided with a trawler’s submerged nets. The continuing tension over the Russia/Ukraine crisis could again explain the prescence of Russian submarines in British waters: Exercise Joint Warrior – a major NATO operation – was taking place in Scottish waters, and the Russian submarine may have been heading to spy on this exercise. Five months later in September 2015 the Ministry of Defence admitted that it had indeed been a British submarine which caught the nets of the Karen. Armed Forces Minister Penny Mordaunt said that the incident occurred because “…the submarine did not correctly identify the Karen as a fishing vessel with nets in the water, and thus did not give her the berth she would otherwise have had.”

In October 2015 a report by the Marine Accident Investigation Branch heavily criticised the Royal Navy for its “lack of transparency” over the incident, and for taking five months to admit liability. The report found that the Royal Navy submarine crew incorrectly believed they were passing underneath a cargo vessel, meaning they did not leave enough room to avoid the nets of the Karen. The Royal Navy was found to have failed to “fully engage in the subsequent investigation” and the report expressed concern that lessons learned following the sinking of the Antares in 1990 were being forgotten and that the Royal Navy would have to work to “rebuild trust with the fishing industry.”

New Dawn: In January 1989 the USS Will Rogers, an American nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Benjamin Franklin-class submarine was travelling to the US submarine base at Holy Loch in the Firth of Clyde. The submarine, which was travelling on the surface, collided with the Scottish trawler New Dawn.

USS Will Rogers
USS Will Rogers photographed in 1967.

While some reports state that both vessels suffered serious damage, the British government played down the incident with the British Armed Forces Minister Archie Hamilton stating that the trawler suffered only “superficial damage and continued under way” and the USS Will Rogers “revealed minor scraping and chipping of paint.” Although this incident consisted of a trawler and submarine colliding on the surface it happened just one year before, and in the same area, as the sinking of the Antares, and underlined the lax attitude the UK government had to the danger submarines posed to fishing boats.

Joanna C: In 1984 the trawler and scallop fishing vessel Joanna C was fishing off the coast of Berry Head, Devon when its nets became snagged on a submarine. The fishing boat was dragged backwards in a series of circles before the crew were able to cut the nets free and release the boat. None of the crew of the Joanna C were injured in the incident. The submarine which caught the Joanna C’s nets has never been identified. Although the Joanna C’s skipper believed that it was a Russian submarine which collided with their nets, they were fishing close to the Royal Navy’s 2nd Submarine Squadron base at Devonport, meaning it was much more likely to be a British submarine which caused the incident.

Ehime Maru: In February 2001 the US Navy’s Los Angles-class submarine the USS Greeneville rapidly surfaced and collided with the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing and training ship off the coast of Hawaii. The Japanese vessel was seriously damaged and quickly sank, with nine of the thirty-five people on board losing their lives.

USS Greeneville
USS Greeneville is nuclear powered attack submarine armed with torpedoes and Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles. In this picture it is carrying a ASDS midget submarine which was not present at the time of the Ehime Maru incident.

The Ehime Maru was relatively large for a fishing vessel being around sixty metres long and displacing over 700 tons. The vessel was used as a training ship, with the thirty-five people on board consisting of crew, teachers and young people who were interested in pursuing a career in commercial fishing once they had completed their education. While the Ehime Maru was operating off the coast of Hawaii the USS Greeneville was also in the same area, having departed from Pearl Harbour. The USS Greeneville – a 110 metre long, 7000 ton nuclear powered attack submarinewas taking part in a distinguished visitor programme. This consisted of sixteen civilians being on board the submarine to observe the day to day workings of the vessel.

USS Birmingham
USS Birmingham – also a Los Angles-class submarine – surfacing after performing an emergency main ballast tank blow.

Under the direction of the submarine’s captain Cmdr. Scott Waddle the USS Greeneville had been carrying out a number of manoeuvres to impress the visitors on board and prepared to conclude with an emergency main ballast tank blow. This involves forcing all of the water out of the main ballast tanks of the submarine under high pressure so that the submarine rapidly ascends, bursting out of the water once it reaches the surface.

USS Greeneville Sonar Room
The sonar room of the USS Greeneville. There was criticism of the number of civilians who were allowed to be present in this room during the incident.

The crew of the USS Greeneville had calculated that there were no surface vessels within several miles of them, but a key piece of equipment known as the Analog Video Signal Display Unit (which relayed sonar information to the captain) was not working. Waddle had set off to sea without trying to get it repaired, believing that having a functioning Analog Video Signal Display Unit was not important for the manoeuvres he had planned. Standard operating procedure stated that the submarine should go to periscope depth for three minutes to check that the area was free of surface vessels but Waddle only ascended to periscope depth for half of this time before diving to perform the emergency ballast tank blow. Many of the sonar technicians and crew members found that the civilians in the control room blocked their access to the control consoles and sonar screens, while many of the civilians asked questions and chatted to the crew while they were trying to prepare for the manoeuvre. All of this time the Ehime Maru had been making its way to the area where the USS Greenville was planning to surface.

The USS Greeneville performed the emergency ballast tank blow and surfaced directly underneath the Ehime Maru, striking the fishing vessel with its rudder and cutting a hole into the hull of the ship. Almost immediately the Ehime Maru lost power and began to sink, stern first. Within minutes the Ehime Maru was completely submerged. Several life rafts had deployed from the Ehime Maru but the USS Greeneville was unable to rescue the survivors as the combination of rough seas and bow waves created by the movement of the submarine itself threatened to capsize the life rafts. The USS Greeneville instead moved away from the area and issued a distress call and US Coast Guard vessels and helicopters made their way to the area from Pearl Harbour. Of the thirty-five people on board the Ehime Maru twenty-six were rescued. The nine who lost their lives included four teenage trainees, all of whom were believed to be in the lower levels of the vessel, meaning that they had no chance of escaping due to the rapid sinking of the ship.

Ehime Maru Recovery
Left: Cpt. Bert Marsh of the US Navy showing the Ehime Maru recovery plan. Right: the Ehime Maru recovery in progress.

The incident sparked a major diplomatic incident between Japan and the USA, with Japan claiming that the US response to the incident lacked remorse. Eventually the US president George W. Bush apologised on national television, with other major US politicians also adding their condolences. The submarine’s commander Scott Waddle was also criticised for his response, and was suspended pending an investigation into the incident. While Waddle was found to be primarily responsible for the incident and the rushed procedures used by the submarine crew were heavily criticised it was found that there was no need for court martial proceedings or criminal charges to be brought. Waddle, who had been placed on administrative duties since the incident, was honourably discharged from the US Navy and allowed to retire on his full pension.

In late 2001 the US government paid for the wreck of the Ehime Maru to be moved into shallower water by a commercial deep-water recovery contracting company, overseen by the US Navy. The bodies still on the vessel were recovered and the wreck was then taken back to very deep water and sunk. The US arranged a multi-million dollar compensation package with the families of the casualties and the survivors and paid for a memorial ceremony. In 2002 Scott Waddle visited Japan and laid a wreath at the memorial which was built to commemorate the incident. He met with the families of some of the victims but others boycotted his visit.

Ehime Maru memorial in Hawaii.
The Ehime Maru memorial in Hawaii.

As of August 2020 the USS Greeneville is still in active service with the US Navy. A new fishing and training ship, also named the Ehime Maru has been built in Japan to replace the original vessel. Scott Waddle wrote a book entitled The Right Thing which gave his side of the Ehime Maru collision incident. He is now an “inspirational speaker, consultant and executive coach” who, according to this website, commands fees of $10,000 – $15,000 for his speeches.

Daytona: In July 2016 the French trawler Daytona was fishing around thirty miles off the Cornish coast. At the same time NRP Tridente, a 2000 ton, 68-metre diesel-electric submarine of the Portuguese Navy was in the same area taking part in a NATO exercise.

NRP Tridente
NRP Tridente pictured in Lisbon Naval Base in 2010.

The submarine became entangled in the nets of the trawler and immediately surfaced and made contact with the fishing vessel. The French and Portuguese authorities confirmed that no one was injured in the incident.